Session 1
Understanding Youth with Anxiety

What if a youth’s need for safe relationship continues to go unmet?

When a youth does not experience a consistently warm relationship in which they feel safe, or when they have faced too much separation from their parents, families, and familiar faces and places, the emotion of alarm remains activated. Although alarm can’t do its job of swiftly moving the youth to safety by restoring closeness to safe adults, it continues to try. This results in all the symptoms of anxiety that can be so troubling for youth, especially youth in care. As long as relational needs continue to go unmet, strategies that focus on reducing symptoms work only temporarily—or fail altogether. When alarm gets stuck, the nervous system gets stuck, which in turn keeps a young person trapped in survival mode and results in a whole spectrum of anxiety symptoms. Even after a young person has been placed in much safer circumstances, alarm can remain, and anxiety can persist until the nervous system deems it safe.

Young people in care, who have experienced unexpected and unwanted disruptions, chronic feelings of not being safe, and overwhelming separation from their primary attachments, can get stuck in what world-renowned developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld (2016) refers to as the flight from vulnerability and the pursuit for connection—two emotionally driven states, both of which manifest as and intensify symptoms of anxiety. 

When a youth is stuck in either of these states and experiences symptoms of anxiety, their capacity to socially engage is compromised, affecting their relationships and their ability to participate in and enjoy daily life. How this looks for each individual youth can be very different, but may include:

These symptoms can be confusing for care providers wanting to help, as youth often become unreceptive to care. Connection can become a source of alarm for youth and can make caregiving hugely problematic and frustrating. When there is a chronic lack of safety and the emotion of alarm gets stuck, causing the symptoms of anxiety, we can get alarm unstuck by helping a young person feel safe in relationship, focusing on these four relational approaches:


youth’s identity, experiences and family traditions


youth in care to meet their emotional and relational needs


experiences that fuel anxiety


conditions that lead to wellness, resilience and growth

Walking Alongside Youth (WAY) explores the use of these teachings, which can be applied safely and cross-culturally, to strengthen relationships with youth who have unmet needs, and who are showing symptoms and behaviours related to anxiety.

'It's your path but you don't have to walk it alone.'

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